Change happens when knowledge flows in two directions…
Table for Five: Noach
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on this day, all the springs of the great deep burst apart, and the windows of the heavens broke open.
Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University
It is a beautiful – as well as a Biblical – metaphor, G-d “opens up the windows of heaven.” Who wouldn’t want to be the recipient of such divine grace? Indeed, the prophet Malachi identifies it with supernatural favor, “Prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.” (3:10) Yet when we first come across this very phrase in the story of Noah it is an introduction to a universal catastrophe that almost destroyed the world. The open windows of heaven brought such a deluge of water that the resulting flood almost caused the end of the Lord’s human experiment. How to explain the seeming contradiction? It is the secret of the difference between having too little or too much, between a heavenly gift or a godly punishment. It is meant to illustrate the vast gulf between two words – success and excess.
The generation of the flood sinned mightily because they desired too much. They wanted what was not legally theirs. They were people of violence who filled their lives with the quest for the possessions of others. They epitomized Gore Vidal’s maxim, “It is not enough that I succeed; others must fail.” The windows of heaven opened with the divine message of the curse of “too much.” Water is blessing – but anything to excess brings a flood of death and destruction. This is the powerful flip-side of Malachi’s blessing, meant to make us ever mindful of the Torah ideal of moderation.
Nili Isenberg, Pressman Academy Judaics Faculty
The story of the flood is the story of devastating trauma. Despite Noah’s silence and obedience throughout the narrative, his state of mind is evoked by a phrase in our verse, “Bayom Hazeh” – “On this day.” Completely superfluous, coming after three other very specific indicators of time, this phrase emphasizes how a single day can be seared into one’s memory. Whereas the more common phrase “Bayom Hahu” (“On THAT day”) would indicate an event in the past or future, our phrase hints at an event of eternal and haunting presence. It’s the day that we remember like it was yesterday, the day that continues to live in our stories like it is still happening today. This is the day when the floor falls out from under us and the roof collapses above. “Bayom Hazeh” – on this day.
While Noah was a physical survivor of the flood, it is clear from the text that he was far from unscathed in this experience. God tries to show Noah the way forward. Again and again, repeated no less than seven times, God points to the “covenant” that he establishes with Noah, his descendants, and every living thing after the flood, and as we know, we are commanded to follow in God’s ways. We must also embrace our relationships with others if we are to overcome trauma. While Noah seems to have failed to learn this lesson, may we never forget our family, friends, and neighbors in this world who love and need us.
Judy Gruen, Author, “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith”
When the moral corruption and degradation of society became too much for God, He performed an intervention by sending the flood. The precise date given proves that this was no freak weather system—God warned it was coming if society refused to mend its ways. The Zohar interpreted this date as a prophecy that “in the six hundredth year of the sixth [millennium, i.e., around the year 1840], the gates of supernal wisdom and the wellsprings of earthly wisdom will open up. This will prepare the world to be elevated in the seventh [millennium, i.e., the messianic era].”
In fact, the mid-19th-century did see a “flood” of new knowledge both in the scientific world as well as revealed Torah wisdom. Used properly, modern science and technology advance not only our physical lives but our spiritual consciousness as well. Torah knowledge is spread through technology. Scientific discoveries continue to build the case for a divine Creator of the universe. The prediction that when Mashiach comes the entire world will know in an instant was incomprehensible until the days of modern, instantaneous communication.
At the beginning of this parsha, God’s name is Elo-kim—the name connected with His attribute of strict justice. Now, before the deluge, God’s name is Y-K-V-K—the name connected with His attribute of mercy. The forty days of flood waters suggest the forty days needed to form a human fetus. The floodgates opening now not only wash away the forces of corruption but invite a new beginning.
Nina Litvak, AccidentalTalmudist.org
The idea that God punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous is a foundational principle of Judaism, but it’s a concept that many of us are uncomfortable with. It’s far from difficult to find good people who suffer and bad ones who prosper. But the vivid blessings and curses promised in the Torah are indeed based on our behavior. The Torah makes it clear that reward and punishment are a key part of God’s plan – if not in this world, then in the next.
How can we reconcile our belief in a God who loves us unconditionally with the Torah’s grim warnings of horrific punishment if we do not follow the laws given on Mount Sinai? A clue can be found in the Torah’s description of the flood, a colossal punishment on the world which spared only one righteous family. “The windows of the heavens were opened” and water poured through on its path of destruction. Scary! But compare this verse to Psalm 78:23-24: “He… opened the doors of heaven, and rained upon them manna to eat.” As it says in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 100b), “To mete out punishment, God opened only windows, which are considerably smaller openings than doors, indicating that the attribute of reward is greater.”
God creates openings through which to send us blessings or curses, depending on our own choices. It’s comforting to know that God throws open the door to shower us with blessings – while curses need to sneak in through the window.
Rabbi Michael Barclay, Spiritual Leader, Temple Ner Simcha
Michael Meade, James Hillman, and Robert Bly were fond of discussing how change can happen in society: either through “ascending symbolism” or “descending symbolism”. Descending symbolism occurs when the leaders create dictates that are passed down to the people, and ascending symbolism is when the people cause the change.
While temporary shifts can happen from either direction, lasting change only occurs when both are in play: the leaders and the people are moving simultaneously towards a new paradigm. We see God’s manifestation of this in this verse, where a reconfiguration of the physical world happens with water coming from both the heavens and the earth. The great flood comes from both directions, and the world is forever changed.
This teaching is valuable not only in society, but in our Jewish institutions. Rabbis often work in an “echo chamber”, where they hear compliments from those who like what they say, but those who disagree just leave the synagogue without telling the Rabbi why, becoming disenfranchised and unaffiliated. In this process, many Jews are falling through the cracks. And this must change if we are to keep Jews involved in Judaism.
Congregants have a responsibility to give honest feedback to Rabbis and Boards, especially when they are unhappy. Rabbis have to stop having bully pulpits, and forcing their own beliefs on their community. We need to stick to our job: teaching Judaism and guiding Jews to a deeper awareness of God through Jewish practices and Torah.
May we all hear each other, and revitalize Judaism in these challenging times.
With thanks to Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Nili Isenberg, Judy Gruen, Nina Litvak, and Rabbi Michael Barclay.
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Read more at the Jewish Journal.
Photo by Dasha Musohranova via Pexels